Asking a Catholic on the Number of the gospels

Question: How man gospels are there?

Answer: The name gospel, as designating a written account of Christ’s words and deeds, has been, and is still, applied to a large number of narratives connected with Christ’s life, which circulated both before and after the composition of our Third Gospel (cf. Luke 1:1-4). The titles of some fifty such works have come down to us, a fact which shows the intense interest which centred, at an early date, in the Person and work of Christ. it is only, however, in connexion with twenty of these “gospels” that some information has been preserved. Their names, as given by Harnack (Chronologie, I, 589 sqq.), are as follows: —

  • 1-4. The Canonical Gospels
  • 5. The Gospel according to the Hebrews.
  • 6. The Gospel of Peter.
  • 7. The Gospel according to the Egyptians
  • 8. The Gospel of Matthias.
  • 9. The Gospel of Philip.
  • 10. The Gospel of Thomas.
  • 11. The Proto-Evangelium of James.
  • 12. The Gospel of Nicodemus (Acta Pilati).
  • 13.The Gospel of the Twelve Apostles.
  • 14.The Gospel of Basilides.
  • 15.The Gospel of Valentinus.
  • 16.The Gospel of Marcion.
  • 17.The Gospel of Eve.
  • 18.The Gospel of Judas.
  • 19.The writing Genna Marias.
  • 20.The Gospel Teleioseos.

Despite the early date which is sometimes claimed for some of these works, it is not likely that any one of them, outside our canonical Gospels, should be reckoned among the attempts at narrating the life of Christ, of which St. Luke speaks in the prologue to his Gospel. Most of them, as far as can be made out are late productions, the apocryphal character of which is generally admitted by contemporary scholars (see APOCRYPHA).

It is indeed impossible, at the present day, to describe the precise manner in which out of the numerous works ascribed to some Apostle, or simply bearing the name of gospel, only four, two of which are not ascribed to Apostles, came to be considered as sacred and canonical. It remains true, however, that all the early testimony which has a distinct bearing on the number of the canonical Gospels recognizes four such Gospels and none besides. Thus, Eusebius (died 340), when sorting out the universally received books of the Canon, in distinction from those which some have questioned writes: “And here, among the first, must be placed the holy quaternion of the Gospels”, while he ranks the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” among the second, that is, among the disputed writings (Church History III.25). Clement of Alexandria (died about 220) and Tertullian (died 220) were familiar with our four Gospels, frequently quoting and commenting on them. The last-named writer speaks also of the Old Latin version known to himself and to his readers, and by so doing carries us back beyond his time. The saintly Bishop of Lyons, Irenæus (died 202), who had known Polycarp in Asia Minor, not only admits and quotes our four Gospels, but argues that they must be just four, no more and no less. He says: “It is not possible that the Gospels be either more or fewer than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout the world, and the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel and the Spirit of life; it is fitting that we should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side and vivifying our flesh. . . The living creatures are quadriform, and the Gospel is quadriform, as is also the course followed by the Lord” (Against Heresies III.11.8). About the time when St. Irenæus gave this explicit testimony to our four Gospels, the Canon of Muratori bore likewise witness to them, as did also the Peshito and other early Syriac translations, and the various Coptic versions of the New Testament. The same thing must be said with regard to the Syriac harmony of the canonical Gospels, which was framed by St. Justin’s disciple, Tatian, and which is usually referred to under its Greek name of Diatessaron (To dia tessaron Euaggelion). The recent discovery of this work has allowed Harnack to infer, from some of its particulars, that it was based on a still earlierharmony, that made by St. Hippolytus of Antioch, of our four Gospels. It has also set at rest the vexed question as to St. Justin’s use of the canonical Gospels. “For since Tatian was a disciple of Justin, it is inconceivable that he should have worked on quite different Gospels from those of his teacher, while each held the Gospels he used to be the books of primary importance” (Adeney). Indeed, even before the discovery of Tatian’s “Diatessaron”, an unbiased study of Justin’s authentic writings had made it clear that the holy doctor used exclusively our canonical Gospels under the name of Memoirs of the Apostles.

Of these testimonies of the second century two are particularly worthy of notice, viz, those of St. Justin and St. Irenæus. As the former writer belongs to the first part of that century, and speaks of the canonical Gospels as a well-known and fully authentic collection, it is only natural to think that at his time of writing (about A. D. 145) the same Gospels, and they only, had been recognized as sacred records of Christ’s life, and that they had been regarded as such at least as early as the beginning of the second century of our era. The testimony of the latter apologist is still more important. “The very absurdity of his reasoning testifies to the well-established position attained in his day by the fourGospels, to the exclusion of all others. Irenæus’ bishop was Potinus who lived to the age of 90, and Irenæus had known Polycarp in Asia Minor. Here are links of connexion with the past which go back beyond the beginning of the second century” (Adeney).

In the writings of the Apostolic Fathers one does not, indeed, meet with unquestionable evidence in favour of only four canonical Gospels. But this is only what one might expect from the works of men who lived in the very century in which these inspired records were composed, and in which the word Gospel was yet applied to the glad tidings of salvation, and not to the written accounts thereof.


One Comment on “Asking a Catholic on the Number of the gospels”

  1. […] listed by Michael Dewalt at God-Centered Musings, who lays out an answer to the question, ‘How many gospels are […]

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